The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 7.

21 Apr

Part 7: Nothing ever ends

In mid-July, an Israeli judge confirmed the injunction, preventing the sisters from selling the papers, until the entire archive—spread out over two countries and half a dozen storage places—could be inventoried. Given the disjointed nature of the collection, with its multiple location points and total lack of organization, this could take months.

Or longer. On November 1, lawyers from both the German archive and the sisters have asked for extensions to the boxes being opened. The sisters argue that it is an invasion of their privacy. The Germans argue that the papers could be damaged in the cataloging process. The cataloging stopped. Reported negotiations are taking place.

Relations between the Israeli National Library and the German Literature Archive remain frosty. In late 2009, the Israelis demanded that the German archive give back the manuscript of The Trial, they had acquired over 20 years earlier. The German Archive refused, citing familiar arguments concerning Hoffe’s ownership of the papers.

The Kafka papers not located in Israel continue to appear at auctions, despite Israeli attempts to stop them. In late 2009, two letters sold in Switzerland for large sums of money. The buyer and seller remained anonymous.

Throughout this study, I kept wondering: what is the purpose of an archive of this type anyway? Kafka’s work has been pored over by scholars for decades. The difficult work of exegetics has been completed. We have six volumes of his diaries, three novels, a few dozens short stories, and volumes of his letters. Even if the archive has copious amounts of new material, it is unlikely that anything truly revelatory will emerge. Brod milked his friend’s output for all it was worth. We’re most likely talking about detritus, notes and cast off diary entries and doodles. Some odds and ends.

One of the major U.S. archives of this type—dedicated to cultural artifacts from authors and willing to pay top dollar for them—is the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center. I contacted them with some of these questions, curious what they would say concerning the rationale for paying a lot of money for what is, by most accounting, useless.

Richard Workman, an associate librarian on staff there, responded. “One person’s trivial material is another scholar’s gold mine,” he said. “When letters or diaries are published, they are not always exhaustive, and much remains in the archive that’s not published.” Workman went on to explain that their reading room was in constant use, frequented by scholars from all over the world. The value of the material could not be decided until it was studied at length.

When asked about competing with another archive for the letters of an author, Workman was curt and abrupt, dismissing the idea. “As a rule, we don’t ‘compete’ with other archives for papers,” he said. Each archive has its niche; the Harry Ransom archive, for example, focuses on artists from England, the U.S., and France. He elaborated further on their archive’s mission: “What matters is whether the author influenced other creators, either negatively or positively, or was important historically. We are trying to create a comprehensive picture of the period for which we collect.”

Workman’s answer is misleading and disingenuous[1]. University archives, national archives, personal archives—it’s a constant collision of interests, egos, money, and needs. They are expensive to maintain. They are expensive to expand. Their benefit extends to a very select few. An argument could be made that the study of literature and its exegesis, extends to all of humanity, but this is a stretch and I think even hardcore scholars would have a hard time arguing this point with a straight face.

A final wrinkle is the Kafka archive already set up in Oxford, England. Oxford University has its own Kafka center, with original manuscripts, at the Bodleian Library. They acquired the manuscripts through a third party, who had received them from Kafka’s European publisher back in the 1940s. The Oxford Kafka Research Centre holds conferences promoting Kafka studies, as well as a visiting scholar program. They haven’t entered the legal arena and have no public intention of doing so, but I think they could make a case that the archive should be kept in one place, and that they should be given care of the papers.

And, I wonder, how different this current legal trial would be in tone and structure if the English were trying to buy it, instead of the Germans?

As of this writing, the archive was still being inventoried, running past the projected deadline. Considering the nature of Kafka’s work and the absurd odyssey his papers have taken up to this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if the inventory is never completed. If the Israeli courts side with the sisters, the papers will be sold to Germany and leave Israel forever. Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, Kafka will be situated within German literary culture and traditions, a hinge writer who paved the way for a new type of literature and new European voices. If the Israeli courts side with the Israeli National Library, Kafka’s papers will end up archived there. And, ten, twenty, fifty years from now, he was will be read primarily as a Jewish author, and probably connected to Zionism and the formation of the state of Israel.

Israel has one Kafka, Germany the other. He belongs to both and neither. He would have valued the contradiction.


[1] In the June 11, 2007, the New Yorker had an extended profile of the archive, reporting a number of instances where the archive competed with other archives for writers’ work, often controversially.

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